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Monsieur Hawarden: A 19th century mystery story

Monsieur Hawarden

The strange but true story of Monsieur Hawarden (with some slightly fictionalized bits). Monsieur Hawarden’s mysterious life was the basis of what was probably Belgium’s first novel featuring a non-binary character. A worthy addition therefore to my series on Remarkable Belgians.

An unexpected arrival in Ligneuville

One snowy winter evening in 1848, a horse and carriage is heard clacking through the streets of the village of Ligneuville, near Malmedy in Wallonia. Its opulence makes it stand out from the carts owned by the local farmers. It attracts the attention of the locals who peek into the carriage as it passes by. A man peers out his front window.

“Who’s he? With such a carriage!” the villager asks his wife. “And dressed so elegantly. He must be rich. He’s probably some fancy toff from Liège.”

The carriage continues through the village and draws up in front of an old watermill alongside the River Amblève. The man walks uprightly into the house and disappears from view.

“You can call me Monsieur Hawarden”

At first, the man keeps himself to himself. But after a few months he begins to appear in the village. Rarely at first, and then more regularly. He is quite personable. He chats to the locals, and buys supplies in the small village shops. Every now and then he calls into one of the many bars in Lignueville, where he sits quietly in a corner with a glass of red wine.

“He’s actually a quite a decent chap,” says the man whom we met earlier.

“And very good looking,” adds his wife. “His nails are so well manicured.”

After a while, the villagers discover his name – Monsieur Arthur Hawarden. Gradually over the coming years Monsieur Hawarden becomes fairly well integrated into village life. He is perceived as a charming man, intelligent, and of great learning. He is courteous and generous … yet his past remains shrouded in mystery. No-one knows anything about his origins. When asked, he remains extremely secretive.

A sudden death

Fifteen years later, in 1863 – in the morning of 1 March to be precise – Monsieur Hawarden’s housekeeper arrives at the watermill to do her daily chores for her employer. He is nowhere to be seen, and there’s no evidence he has taken his normal breakfast. She goes upstairs and knocks at his bedroom door but there’s no answer. She pushes open the door and shrieks. Monsieur Hawarden is lying dead on the floor.

The housekeeper pulls herself together and walks briskly to the house of the undertaker in the village. Together they return to the watermill with the undertaker’s horse and cart to collect the body. The undertaker and housekeeper enter the mill to clean and dress the body. They are inside for a long time.

An unexpected discovery

Eventually they come outside, looking very pale and visibly shaken. There’s a lot of head-shaking and gesticulating. Eventually they return to the mill and after a few minutes carry out the body together and load it onto the cart. The undertaker flicks his whip at the horse and the cart trundles off. Shortly afterwards, the housekeeper appears in the doorway in her coat, hat and scarf. She scurries off to the village. She has a major item of news to spread.

“You’ll never believe this,” she tells the butcher’s wife. “But Monsieur Hawarden has died, and …”

“It happens to everyone dear,” replies the butcher’s wife. “So I can easily believe it.”

“No, it’s not that he died. It’s that Monsieur Hawarden is … or was…” She hesitates.

“Yes, is or was what?” asks the butcher’s wife impatiently.

“A WOMAN!” states the housekeeper.

Monsieur Hawarden was not a Monsieur

And indeed it is big news in Ligneuville. It seems that Monsieur Hawarden has been keeping a huge secret. Monsieur Hawarden was not a Monsieur at all. He was a Madame. A French Madame at that. Her papers identify her as Madame Meriora Gillibrand. She has been living as a man for 15 years under the noses of the villagers, who didn’t suspect a thing.

But the mystery remains: why did she live her life in Belgium as a man?

Fleeing from the scene of a crime

Meriora Gillibrand was actually born in England in 1806. When she was ten her family emigrated to Paris where she was brought up in French high society. As she grew up Meriora was regarded as a really beautiful woman. Two young men were deeply in love with her. She became engaged to one, an action which filled the rival with jealousy. So much so, that the two young men fought, and her fiancé was killed by the rival.

When Meriora heard of her fiancé’s death, she immediately suspected the rival and confronted him. During a fierce argument, Meriora Gillibrand stabbed her fiancé’s rival, and he too died.

All possibility of happiness had been destroyed for Meriora. Her fiancé was dead. She was a murderer. A long prison sentence beckoned.

An ingenious plan is devised

With the help of close friends, a cunning plan was concocted. She would leave Paris and go into exile in Belgium. Moreover, she would throw the police investigation completely off the track by taking up a new identity … as a man.

And so, in Ligneuville, Belgium, Monsieur Hawarden was born.

Did her disguise give her the freedom and peace she sought after? Or was she always looking over her shoulder, fearing discovery? We shall never know.

Naturally her secret was revealed upon her death on 1 March 1863. She is buried – as Meriora Gillibrand – in the cemetery, where you can see her tombstone.

The Monsieur Hawarden movie and books

The fascinating life of Meriora Gillibrand was the basis for the 1935 novella “Monsieur Hawarden” by Flemish writer Filip De Pillecyn (1891-1962). De Pillecyn based his novella on the true story that was told to him when he was a teacher in Malmedy. In his book, set against the crisis in the Eifel area, a woman dresses as a man and retreats after an unhappy love to a country house. She fills her days with walks in the region and looking back on her failed life.

It was made into a 1968 Belgian-Dutch movie, Monsieur Hawarden, directed by Belgian director Harry Kümel. It was selected as the Dutch entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 42nd Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.

2024: New edition of the De Pillecyn book

In May 2024 a brand-new Dutch version of De Pillecyn’s book was published. In addition to a glowing foreword by Belgian novelist Tom Lanoye and beautiful illustrations by Reinhart Croon, this edition of Monsieur Hawarden also contains an in-depth historical investigation by Flemish TV and radio documentary maker Annick Lesage into the character on whose life the book is based.

Monsieur Hawarden movie
The movie poster of Monsieur Hawarden
Monsieur Hawarden by Filip De Pillecyn
The cover of the new book

Where to find Monsieur Hawarden’s grave

It’s in the cemetery of Ligneuville. The cemetery is located about 200 meters from the centre of Ligneuville and has some parking spaces.

Monsieur Hawarden's grave lies in the cemetery of Ligneuville
The cemetery of Ligneuville
The grave of Meriora Gillibrand
The grave of Meriora Gillibrand

What to visit near Ligneuville

While you’re in Ligneuville, you might be interested in visiting:

Where to stay in or near Ligneuville

Here are some suggestions:

  • Hotel du Moulin, a picturesque country house in Ligneuville set in beautiful grounds. Ideal for hiking and fishing.
  • Hotel Saint-Hubert: This charming small hotel just outside Ligneuville is an ideal base from which to explore the High Fens.
  • About 200 metres from the cemetery is Alfie’s Home, a superb furnished holiday apartment.
  • Prefer a B&B? Then you can’t go wrong with Le refuge de Kila.

Of course there are other possibilities. Use the button below to check what’s available.

26 thoughts on “Monsieur Hawarden: A 19th century mystery story”

  1. What an intriguing story, but a sad one as well, for Meriora, since I am sure she never experienced love again. Her solution to still live a somewhat normal life, however, was brilliant. I guess the theme of the movie was too controversial in 1968. Too bad.

    1. It’s interesting that it seems she was never discovered until her death. I wonder what the reaction would have been if the villagers found out she was a woman earlier?

    1. Yes Clare, and equally, I wonder how many transgender people there have been over the years who have had to keep quiet and live as man/woman just to keep the peace.

  2. Fascinating story. I have heard other stories of women passing themselves off as men (eg the woman who became an army doctor in the 19th century when this would not be a career open to women) but not this one.

  3. What an interesting story, that’s a long time to maintain the pose. I haven’t seen it, but it also remind me of that Glenn Close movie, “Albert Nobbs,” and there were some women who fought in the (U.S.) Civil War, and I think one of them eventually died decades later, in an old soldiers’ home. But this story has the three-way love story, murder, and escape from execution, great stuff!

    1. I wasn’t aware of that movie Robert, but looking it up on IMDB there is indeed a similarity. It’s sad whenever women have to pretend to be men to get on in life.

  4. Of course the story didn’t end at Ligneuville. Monsieur Howarden fell in love with the miller at Pont-Ligneuville. And to avoid understandable problems associated with walking hand in hand through the streets of Ligneuville, the miller decided to move away. He moved his wife and family in 1861, buying the grist mill in Stavelot from Jean Dubois. His name was Simon Seffer’ And his family ran the mill after his death for several generations. Some said that his departure was taken as an abandonment by Monsieur Howarden who never got over the loss, dwindled away and died 2 years later.

  5. Dear sir, for research I’m doing, I would like to ask yoy where this new information comes from? Very curious and thank you very much.

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